I was sorry to learn last week that a local social media start-up, Brightkite, had streamlined its efforts away from check-ins, posts and streaming to focus on becoming a robust solution for group-texting instead. I hope for their success, though I feel their decision to no longer support m.check.in as a profound loss. For anyone trying to sample more than geolocation service at a time, that little side venture was a godsend (and arguably one of Brightkite’s key differentiators in a crowded market). With a single check-in on its mobile web-site, I could submit updates to Foursquare, Gowalla, Whrrl and Brightkite simultaneously, saving a significant amount of screen-thumbing everywhere I went. Without it, users like me are back to the good old days of check-in fatigue, having to choose which app, if any, to use in any given context.
Perhaps this is a good thing. Especially for a blogging parent.
Social networks are not all interchangeable, you see, and the value of any connection in my social graph depends entirely on context. I feel very differently about a total stranger wanting to “follow” my tweets than I do about the one asking to be a foursquare “friend.” One is a platform for sharing interesting content and conversation. The other is for sharing my precise physical location and details about my day. Now, if you are not already part of my waking life and have some intersection already with my whereabouts (and that of my family!), why would I choose to give you such intimate access (especially if you’re not even a person, but a brand)? Conversely, while just being the friend of a friend doesn’t warrant sharing my GPS location, it’s a perfectly good reason to connect on LinkedIn in order to broaden our professional connections.
Yet, in recent months I have been inundated with friend requests over these check-in services, leading me to believe there is a significant amount of woolly thinking around the use of social networks of all kinds in building community. When these requests come from retail brands, they are baffling and somewhat amusing. (After all, what is the value of having a cable company as a foursquare friend?) When they come from complete strangers, whether or not we are connected through some other acquaintance, they can even be creepy. (If I don’t know you, why do you want to connect with me over foursquare? Why not Twitter, or through my blog? At this stage of the relationship, where I am is more important than what I say? Really?)
In short, Twitter is not Facebook is not Foursquare is not LinkedIn. Mom- and dad-bloggers especially should know the difference between merely maximizing their followers/friends/connections and strategically choosing the medium that supports the story we want to tell.
My four-year-old son (with a little help from Mom) gave me the new Superman: Secret Origin for Christmas. It’s a great read that consolidates all of the core elements of the Superman mythology into one coherent tapestry that serves as a platform for enjoying the character today. Original elements from the 1930s (the rocket, the doomed planet) are layered in with classic additions from the Silver Age (Krypto the Superdog, the Legion of Super-Heroes) as well as modern contributions to the franchise (like the Lex/Clark adolescent friendship from TV’s Smallvile, or the crystalline technology and facial characterizations of the Christopher Reeves films). Underlying it all, of course, is the essential importance of the secret identity.
Today, disguised as a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet, a great metropolitan newspaper, he fights a never-ending battle for truth and justice…
The core conceit of the character is that Superman’s never-ending battle is only possible through the strategic use of disguise. He may be super, but to also be a man, he must blend into the crowd. Traditionally, the role of the secret identity in the super-hero trope is anonymity for the protection of loved ones. But when that hero, like Clark Kent, is also a writer, it has added significance in terms of personal fulfillment and professional ethics: the secret identity is what lets him be published on the merits of his work and not his social influence. The secret identity is what lets his work stand or fall on its own and not get an easy ride on the tail of Superman’s cape. As a public figure, Superman touches the lives of presidents and inner-city children alike. Everyone wants him in their social graph. As a reporter, the same is true for Clark Kent, except that his social graph depends entirely on the stories he can tell, not the stories that are told about him. The secret identity is what keeps his work authentic.
I think mom- and dad-bloggers alike have something to learn from this example. As we head into 2011, I issue a friendly challenge to all my blogging peers to adopt the principals of the secret identity for the good of our loved ones and the authenticity of our work.
Here’s the question that should trouble us all: as parents, what right do we have to blog about our children? Or put another way: what rights do our children reserve when we blog about them? Our answer to that will define not only the ethics and legitimacy of mommy- and dad-blogging in general, but also our parenting and the future well-being of our kids in particular.
Don’t get me wrong: there is clear community value in having a robust ecosystem of parents sharing stories, experiences, advice and encouragement. At the same time, I fear this emerging ecosystem edges perilously close to one that feeds upon our kids when our practice is built on disclosing intimate details about our children’s lives and identities to the online marketplace. Sure, there’s an obvious and natural desire for parents to share what we love, and to write what we know. But these are little people in formation who have been entrusted into our care. Where do we draw the line around what we share on their behalf? What criteria do we adhere to as blogging parents in deciding what to disclose and what to withhold? As parents, should we not be the ones setting the standards and practice for this vocation?
What’s the big deal, you may wonder? Sharing funny stories? Reflecting on our challenges as parents? Their challenges and insecurities as they grow? We post their images and names, and even peg them to our location in order to drive readership. Isn’t that what mommy- and dad-blogging is all about?
Is it? Try this thought experiment: to get your child established and credit-worthy, you open multiple lines of credit in their name and begin to leverage this capital buying and selling online, creating a credit history, and even investing on their behalf. Theirs is the financial risk and the future credit rating, yours is the risk-taking. Legality aside, there is something unseemly in this, no matter its motivation. Information is the new credit, so are we not severely leveraging our children’s future, every time we post their names with a cute photo, recommend the preschool they attend, reveal their dreams and insecurities, and give out their names and ages? Every time we identify our children and publicly disclose about them without their consent, we are establishing their digital shadow, an online “credit history” that they had no say in shaping, and will have no ability to escape. Even ignoring parental responsibility, do we not at least owe them the same protection as journalists do their anonymous sources?
The great bulk of parental blogging today follows much the same sensibility that sharing home movies, or even photos over the family website, had in prior generations. Posting their names and ages and photos in our blogger bios may seem a simple display of love and pride today. But the interconnectedness, discoverability and capitalization of all online content today raises the stakes beyond anything we were trained to recognize as parents.
I’m not talking about the old boogeyman of the online sexual predator, or even the very real and probably more immediate plague of cyber-bullying. I’m talking about the marketplace of datamining intrinsic to digital commerce, the ubiquitous monetization of our online personas that helps define markets, create capital and move product.
Consider for a moment:
Mashable last week published a terrific infographic describing trends in content sharing online in 2010. Not surprisingly:
44% of shares occurred through Facebook in 2010, up 33% from last year. That number does not include shares done via Facebook’s “Like” button, which means the actual, universal percentage of shares through Facebook is likely higher. [italics added for emphasis]
Nearly half of all content shared anywhere with anyone online?! That is an unbelievable amount of visibility into user-interest to grant any entity.
Earlier this year, Om Malik examined Rapleaf, a little known Internet information aggregator collecting and selling data from social networking activity to startups and online retailers.
Think of Rapleaf as the provider of the FICO score about an email address. That email address comes with Facebook ID, Flickr ID, Twitter account information and other social details. For a marketer, or even someone trying to hit you up for business, this is pretty relevant data, for it allows them to target a customer and connect them socially. In another scenario, you can buy an email list of a million addresses for $1000, check them against Rapleaf and end up with about 10,000 emails worth targeting. That’s a pretty good deal.
Is it any coincidence that more than 100,000 users have installed the Disconnect extension to block third parties and search engines from tracking their browsing and searches in just under a quarter?
I’m no alarmist; I work in public relations for technology companies after all. But I do draw a line. It is one thing for me, an informed adult, to let my purchases, browsing habits, likes and dislikes be harvested for the convenience of my digital lifestyle. It is quite another for me to pull that same curtain back on my children, feeding their digital vitals into the system before they can even spell their own names.
That’s why, in the interest of maintaining my secret identity, I adopted the following practices myself:
- Not posting, tweeting or sharing in open social media the names or identifiable images of my children
- Opting-out of Rapleaf’s profiling.
- Periodically visiting the Network Advertising Initiative to identify and block behavioral advertising cookies on all computers I use (including my smartphone browser)
- Registering with the Direct Marketing Association to remove my family’s snail-mail address and phone numbers from marketing lists
- Installing AdBlock and Disconnect extensions for all my browsers that support them… especially where I blog or shop for my kids online
- Toggling off the GPS location data in my cell phone camera for any photos I take at home and post online, or using a free software tool like Exif Data Remover to scrub photos of any location data pegged to my home or my kids’ schools
I am no expert. You may have your own preferred practices, and I hope you will share them in the remarks below. Either way, when the Wall Street Journal runs a recent piece on how to outsmart tracking cookies on the Web, we clearly stand at an inflection point in our digital culture. It’s a turning point where mom- and dad- bloggers can offer a unique and guiding voice… hopefully as gatekeepers and not purveyors of our kids’ identity capital.
A Post-Parental Blogging Paradigm
I imagine a new phase of mommy- and dad-blogging built around principles of informed consent. In that context, deciding whether or not to establish our minor children’s identities online would follow a similar analysis as consenting to medical procedure on their behalf. In his seminal work “Alpha and Omega,” founder of the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics Ernlé Young states that medical caregivers must balance four essential principles when making decisions on behalf of others:
- beneficence, which requires the attempt to preserve life
- nonmaleficence, which mandates the alleviation of suffering
- autonomy, which allows patients or their surrogates to be party to the decision-making process
- distributive justice, which mandates the equitable allocation of our limited resources
Replace “medical caregiver” with “mommy- or dad-blogger” and the implications are enormous. As blogging parents, whose life are we preserving… our readers’ now, or our children’s in the future? By posting for our children what they may have chosen not to for themselves, are we violating nonmaleficence, showing them less consideration than we would, say, a professional client? What about autonomy? Are our children active decision makers in anything we disclose for them online? And distributive justice: if social networking creates social capital, are we increasing our own limited resources at the expense of theirs?
In other words, is our blogging authentic? Does it stand on its own without mining our children’s identities? Sure, it may start with something in our parenting lives, but a lasting story lives beyond the immediate context and touches something universal. It can be anonymized and told generically, without releasing our children’s names, ages and embarrassing photos to a search-optimized, datamining environment that’s all geared up to sell them to the highest bidder.
If nothing else, at least stop to ask ourselves one hard question: do I still have something to blog once my children are grown? If not, we may be digging too close to the vein already. It’s probably time to step back and get a glimpse of the bigger story we have been given to tell.
I hope this starts a conversation, and that the many fine bloggers out there, dads and moms alike, will take this as an invitation to imagine together where our corner of the blogosphere is going. In the spirit of self-examination and authenticity, where do we have a duty to guide it?
Featured image by Son of Groucho
It’s an ambitious goal, but StoryWiseGuy aims to take part in the WordPress PostAWeek challenge in 2011.